Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2023-04-26/Opinion

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What Jimbo's question revealed about scamming: The problem we haven't solved.

What Jimbo's question revealed about scamming

This opinion piece begins with a very controversial event. Jimmy Wales asked former ArbCom member Bradv if he was working with a paid editing group. ArbCom has declared that there was no basis for this question, that the evidence behind Wales's question was seriously flawed. The Signpost requested an interview with Bradv, but he declined and said that his statement on his usertalk page should be included in full. It is included below.S

The last two weeks might have felt like the end of an era on Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales's seat on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees was never under threat, and he retains his symbolic "founder's flag". But following a request for arbitration filed against him, he resigned all his administrative and technical functions on Wikipedia. The only real power he will retain other than his Board seat is influence from the trust most Wikipedians have almost always placed in him. No administrator or Arbitration committee can take that power away. It's developed over more than 22 years, largely as the result of his practice of responding to almost any question – albeit sometimes with a long delay – on his talk page. But even that power has waned, over the years, as he has spent less time on Wikipedia. For example, the monthly pageviews for his talkpage (since 2015, when these numbers were first recorded) illustrate some of this decline in his interest and influence.

Pageviews for User talk:Jimbo Wales were over 30,000 per month in 2015, and fell to less than 5,000 in 2023 [7]

But something else happened as well. Seemingly unnoticed by the parties in this dispute, they agreed on a much bigger problem.

The controversy

The immediate cause of the controversy around Wales was a message he left on the talk page of a former ArbCom member, Bradv, about an undeclared paid-editing company named WikiExperts.

Wales wrote:

I have what seems to me a credible report that you have been recommending to people that they use WikiExperts. Is this true? If it is a lie, then fine. But please tell me the truth.
— Jimbo Wales

The report Wales based his inquiry on turned out to be a lot less credible than he stated. But speaking in general terms, it's common practice – indeed, a recommended procedure – to ask a suspected undisclosed paid editor (UPE) about your suspicions in order to clear up any possible misunderstandings.

Many editors will ask via the standard (if overly long) {{Uw-coi}} template:

Information icon Hello,

We welcome your contributions, but if you have an external relationship with the people, places or things you have written about on Wikipedia, you may have a conflict of interest (COI)....

In addition, you are required by the Wikimedia Foundation's terms of use to disclose your employer, client, and affiliation ... See Wikipedia:Paid-contribution disclosure.

Also, editing for the purpose of advertising, publicising, or promoting anyone or anything is not permitted. Thank you.

But this case was different.

Wales was very direct in his question. It was labeled "casting aspersions" and severely criticized. What made matters worse is that Wales's actions are closely watched by other editors, with his words carrying a lot of weight. Bradv shouldn't have been expected to answer the question; he had been missing from Wikipedia for more than eight months since leaving his post at ArbCom.

I have investigated the "credible accusation", as has ArbCom. I did uncover an indication that somebody using Bradv’s name was repeatedly pushing their company’s paid editing service on an article subject whose article was in danger of deletion. The use of Bradv’s username was most likely a scam – something like the extortion documented in the 8-year-old Orangemoody case. ArbCom concluded that it was an "obvious Joe job".

Wales apologized for his tone, but still maintained that the question about a former arb working for a UPE firm was important to address. "I don't think keeping these matters hushed benefits anyone other than the ultimate scammers," he wrote: "I would like us to think about how we might better get the word out to potential victims of these scams, so that the business model of the scammers dries up as much as possible."

Several leaders in the fight against UPE responded rapidly to Wales. Bradv, a former ArbCom member, had been one of them, and they couldn't imagine him working for a UPE firm. According to one current arbitrator, the editors standing against Wales included "2 stewards (1 of whom is also an enwiki checkuser and former ombud), 5 enwiki checkusers (not counting the steward), and an editor who is among the foremost in combating UPE on enwiki (and who has worked collaboratively with the Foundation on fighting paid editing firms like this)".

They also thought that a UPE firm was scamming new Wikipedia editors and its other customers – that Bradv was a victim of a Joe job. Somebody must have been impersonating him. Indeed, UPE firms commonly lie to Wikipedia editors and their other customers, and impersonate Wikipedia admins and other editors, so that Wales and his "credible" source had made the rookie mistake of believing UPE lies.

It might have been all downhill from there. Related discussions began on User talk:Jimbo Wales, and on the village pump, and a request for arbitration was filed. The next morning, Wales requested that his remaining administrative and technical tools be removed.

Assume good faith

Though he was giving up tools that he hadn't used for years, the situation must have been difficult for Wales. He founded Wikipedia more than 22 years ago, and was the ultimate arbiter of editors' conduct for several years. To the outside world, it might have still seemed that he was the embodiment of Wikipedia. He was the inspiration for many editors, and one of the most level-headed of us around. A lot of cheap shots were aimed at him during this time, but for the most part he's kept going, preaching the gospel of "assume good faith" and "imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge in their own language." I, for one, encourage Jimmy to keep the faith and stay with us. We will still need his guidance.

In an interview for this column, Wales told The Signpost "We need to remember such old fashioned essentials as 'Assume Good Faith'. I include myself in that, of course." He believes his recent mistake was making an intemperate remark and he hopes it might be forgiven. He also assumes that those who called him out on the mistake were acting in good faith.

"When I realized my mistake I did what I think was the honorable thing to do: a mea culpa."

What really makes Wikipedia work well is kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and behaving honorably. It is my belief that people will make mistakes - we're human after all - and that there's a right way to deal with mistakes - not through defensiveness or combativeness, but humility and thoughtfulness.
— Jimbo Wales

Bradv returned to editing Wikipedia on April 18, and soon responded to the general situation on his own talk page.

I have spent the last several hours reading through the conversation on my talk page and elsewhere over the past few days. While much of what needed to be said has been said already, I thought I would write down a few thoughts of my own, and perhaps reiterate the wise words of others.

First of all, thank you to all those who came to my defence. Not only is it heart-warming to see this level of support from the community, you have all made excellent points that ultimately raise awareness of issues involved paid editing, off-wiki communication, and administrator competence.

Obviously, the allegations made by Jimbo Wales are entirely untrue and without merit. I don't really feel the need to respond to them, but I would be remiss in posting a message here without including this point.

Sadly, the practice of conning potential article subjects for outrageous sums of money is all too common. Jimbo makes the point that we need to do a better job of communicating the risks involved in hiring paid editors, and on this point I wholeheartedly agree. In my time as an arbitrator I encountered several instances of people paying for articles and then emailing ArbCom when they ultimately got ripped off. The point I always want to make to these people, and the one we should be shouting from the rooftops, is that you do not need to pay to have an article written about you. If you or the things you've done really are worthy of an article, we will write it for free.

Not only do we need to communicate these risks to our readers, it seems we also need to do a better job of communicating that to our editors. Any one who wants to be active in the area of combatting undisclosed paid editing needs to watch out for scams, including blackmail, extortion, and obvious joe jobs. This includes the most basic steps of checking someone's contributions before accusing them of impropriety. And if the evidence is unclear, getting a second opinion from someone else experienced in this area of editing before publicizing allegations, especially those involving off-wiki conduct, is imperative.

While I have not received an apology from Jimbo for anything beyond the "tone" of his inquiry, I do not require one. I don't believe the initial query was made out of malice. Rather, Jimbo has been disconnected from the community for quite some time, and does not have a full appreciation of the depth of knowledge and experience that the editing community has in dealing with issues like these. I am pleased that Jimbo has recognized this and resigned many of his advanced user rights, instead entrusting them solely to those trusted by the community.

Lastly, as a former arb I can't help but point out that the laying down of these tools was done under a cloud, and should not be restored without community consensus. (Seriously, I tried to not include this point, but it really needs to be said.)

— User:Bradv

How the scam works

The mystery of this situation is why so many of the participants didn't seem to understand that they almost all agreed on one thing.[1] Wikipedia is deluged by a scam where paid editing services extort their marks out of outrageous sums, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Their marks include customers that they attract by false advertising, plus those they get by scamming new Wikipedia editors by preying on those who have had their drafts deleted, plus those they extort whose drafts the scammers have deleted themselves. Our temple of knowledge is being polluted by the worst type of money-chaser, by people who will do anything for a buck. This has been going on since before the Orangemoody scandal of 2015, which was widely documented at the time.

While I was writing this, a "reputation management company" calling itself "Reputn Agency" sent out a press release announcing the "launch of its groundbreaking new service: Negative Wikipedia Page Improvement," which is "designed to help individuals and businesses transform their negative Wikipedia content into more balanced, accurate, and positive representations of their public image". I won't link to this content, since I don't want to advertise their business. I'm not accusing them of extortion, but they are clearly advertising a business that openly violates Wikipedia's rules. Their website has a FAQ section including these two questions:

Do You Pay Wikipedia Editors/Reviewers/Admins?

Most of our works are in-house and within the guidelines of Wikipedia. We do 100s edits everyday motivated only by the desire to improve Wikipedia. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes we have to compensate certain people to get things done.

Do Editors Have To Disclose That They Are Paid?

As per the policy, yes! But once a qualified paid editor disclose their identity, any changes they make are likely to be deleted or disputed. Hence, there is no incentive to disclose that information. However this is decided on case by case [sic].

— Reputn Agency

Their potential customers should be informed that all paid editors, including paid administrators, are required to declare their status as part of the Terms of Use, not "case by case." The paid editor's employer, client, and people with other relevant affiliations also must be declared.

The scam begins when paid editing companies look for promotional articles or drafts which are in the process of being deleted or rejected. They then send emails to the article editor/subject saying that they can save the article by getting around Wikipedia rules – but it will cost them, often in advance. The scammers can be patient, just like the vultures they are, until the articles are eventually deleted or rejected. Many of the discouraged article subjects will then take up the scammer's offer, but that will be a mistake. The scammer can't deliver on their promise that the article won't be deleted again. In many cases it's not even worth the effort to try. They'll just take the money and disappear.

Is the editor who wrote the article to blame for trying to work around Wikipedia's rules? Of course, if they've been able to understand all of Wikipedia's inscrutable and inconsistently-enforced rules on the matter, they share some blame. But they are being played by the scammers, con artists, who actively seek the opportunity that Wikipedia so readily provides. Con artists look for people who are willing to skirt the rules, and wheedle them into full-on rule breaking, taking advantage of their optimism or their discouragement as needed. And who among us doesn't sometimes want to skirt the rules, or just step a bit over the line? Nobody is ever 100% honest 100% of the time.[2]

The above description is just about the plain old white-bread scam. The extortion begins when the jackals get tired of waiting for their payday, and move to speed it along by voting in deletion discussions, ripping the article up with unhelpful edits, or by rejecting a draft article by themselves. It reminds me of the old cartoon where two vultures are sitting on a branch and one says "Patience my ass. I'm going to go kill something." No editor deserves that type of treatment from Wikipedians. No editors should be swindled out of thousands of dollars to try to reverse such treatment.

What can we do about it?

We need to understand that eight years of extortion on Wikipedia is much too long. We need to understand that nobody deserves to be scammed. The UPE firms carry the most blame for the scam, but we have created the environment where the scam thrives. The whole Wikipedia community will bear some of the responsibility for the scam until we eradicate the scammers.

We need to warn the targeted victims. I posted a scam warning in 2017 after discussing this grift with two victims. They were both taken in, with emails similar to those apparently used in the Orangemoody scam two years earlier. That warning page now gets about 100 page views per day. It needs to get more exposure, especially to new editors who don't know their way around our back pages. We need to put it in the right places where new editors will see it. Can you post this message at the top of your talk page?

If you are an admin or somebody who thinks that your name is being used without your permission to promote paid editing, please consider putting the following at the top of your user page.

This editor does not accept paid editing work. If somebody claims that he/she is me and is soliciting paid editing work, then they are impersonating me, and likely scamming you. Please forward the evidence to

Individual editors can make a difference, and The Signpost can do its part. But we need a bigger, more organized effort to get the word out to the mainstream press. The Wikimedia Foundation is the usual place where the movement as a whole communicates with the mainstream press. They should do more. Working with the victims of the scam with patience and understanding is not only the right thing to do, but is the key to getting good information on the scammers. The WMF and checkusers can help by keeping track of the network of paid editors who have used this scam. Keeping this paid editing scam hidden from our editors and readers only perpetuates the scam.

We should also understand how much we usually agree on, despite all the mistakes we all make in the heat of editing. We should all understand the power of assuming good faith and the powers of an apology and of forgiveness.

  1. ^ [1][2][3][4][5][6]
  2. ^ How many times do you lie in a day? Don't lie to yourself on this! Scientific American, based on self-reporting recorded in diaries, says that Americans lie on average two times a day.